Doctor Who: Dalek
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 327
The sixth story of the season builds on the promise of the earlier episodes to deliver something truly powerful. "Dalek" pleases on all levels, from the straightforward action-adventure to the more complex and analytic, improving on the series' extant themes and adding new elements of its own.
Above all else, the key distinction between "Dalek" and the stories that precede it is the treatment of character. Rather than having the characterisation being grace notes on a primarily action-oriented adventure, "Dalek" hinges entirely on character and interaction, aided by the strong performances by the cast, which lend a real emotional weight to the unfolding events. While Van Statten fits a familiar trope in being an unscrupulous and arrogant businessman, a selfish coward who is willing to sacrifice his security forces to keep the Dalek alive and who lies unconvincingly and begs when the Dalek has him at its mercy, he is far from unsubtle as a character. The scene where Van Statten plays with the alien musical instrument is key to understanding him; once he has learned what it is for, and that he has no use for it in terms of material profit, he throws it aside, suggesting a man who is so powerful that he regards everyone and everything simply in terms of their value to him. The Doctor's comparison of Van Statten to Davros is particularly apt; like Davros, Van Statten cares only for his own interests and projects, and makes arrogant assumptions about his untouchability which lead to him eventually being overpowered by a Dalek. Van Statten, however, is not incapable of the finer feelings: in the powerful scene where the Doctor, believing Rose to be dead, takes out his anger, rage and guilt on Van Statten, the Doctor visibly gets through to him for a moment, such that he offers no argument when the Doctor releases the Dalek. Although, once his fear of the Dalek has taken over, Van Statten is again verbally attacking the Doctor, he is clearly shown as a human being, with the full range of strengths and weaknesses. It is thus significant that the Dalek failing to kill Van Statten is one of the major positive points of the story: the recognition that even an arrogant, corrupt and evil human being deserves a chance, rather than summary execution for their crimes (however heinous) is a significant emotional step for both Dalek and viewer.
Goddard, in a similar vein, is a nasty piece of work, not disturbed in the slightest about her colleague being hauled off for memory-wiping or the fact that a living creature is being tortured on the lower levels, and preening when Van Statten compliments her joke about Democrats. The fact that Van Statten receives his comeuppance from her at the end of the story is poetic, but is clearly portrayed not as a good person dealing justice to a bad one, but as a bad person screwing over another bad person. This is in contrast to the previous story's suggestion, intentional or not, that politics can be improved by replacing the bad politicians with good ones; here, there is no suggestion that replacing the bad businessperson will make the company any better, as Goddard is clearly just as nasty as Van Statten.
The key character to the story is, of course, the Dalek. This, the first Dalek story not to involve Davros since 1974, shows a welcome return to the clever, cunning and manipulative characterisation of the 1960s Daleks; this Dalek refuses to talk because it understands Van Statten's character, in that the only power it has over him is its refusal to give him the information he requires. The Dalek manipulates Rose; it only speaks to her when she mentions that she is with the Doctor, and then is clearly making an attempt to play on her sympathy. As it later says, it was able to regenerate from absorbing time-traveller DNA, and the fact that mention is made of someone else touching it (and catching fire) means that it must know humans are tactile, so it is clearly trying to get Rose to the point where she will touch it and give it what it needs.
The story, however, is not simply a return to the 1960s, but adds something new to the equation. Uniquely, this is a story about the emotional journey of the Dalek, from cunning manipulator, through vengefulness, through discovering its humanity, to realising that it cannot live as a hate-driven killer once it has experienced emotion, and choosing death, having reached a catharsis and felt the sunlight for the first time. Up until this point, it has seen everything in terms of black/white, us/them, and so forth, but being opened up to emotion brings in a realisation of the complexity of the situation, as well as raising the possibility that the Dalek mindset could be wrong, and, like Xoanon in "The Face of Evil", it is unable to cope with this challenge to its worldview. Significantly, it cannot take the final plunge and kill itself of its own volition, but needs the figleaf of a direct order to allow it to act without thinking or taking emotional responsibility for its action. The viewers themselves are led into a similar web of complex emotions, feeling pity for the Dalek and repulsion at its behaviour.
The Dalek's actions upon gaining its freedom also provide an interesting comparison with the Doctor's killing of Cassandra in The End of the World. As in that case, one can understand and sympathise with the newly-emotional Dalek wanting revenge, and the humans firing on it hardly wish it well, and yet at the same time it must know that they are helpless compared to a Dalek at full strength, and, rather than sailing through the melee with the bullets harmlessly vaporising in its forcefield, it chooses to take sadistic pleasure in devising a way of creatively killing the security forces through electrocution (and forcing the Doctor and Van Statten to watch; this new tendency towards vengeful sadism might also explain why the Dalek uses the combination lock and instigates a hostage situation with Rose rather than simply blasting through the doors in both cases). This explicitly parallels the situation in "The End of the World", in which Cassandra is an evil being who deserves punishment, but at the point where the Doctor kills her, she is helpless and at his mercy rather than a direct, malevolent threat, making his actions against her unjustified and putting them in the domain of vigilantism. Finally, the statement that the Dalek has downloaded the Internet contains the amusing suggestion that, as well as knowing about the Earth's capabilities, defences, physical and social attributes etc., the Dalek is also now familiar with such things as Carry On film trivia, "furry" fandom, and how to train a Japanese rabbit to balance small objects on its head.
The Doctor truly comes into his own in this story. Rather than grinning like a loon at random developments, Christopher Eccleston allows himself the full range of emotions, from joy, to pathos, to plain jealousy (his treatment of Adam suggesting that he has a general antipathy to anything young, attractive, male and in Rose's vicinity) to anger and rage, to the realisation of what he has allowed himself to become. He is explicitly compared to the Dalek, with the Dalek itself even making the parallel-"you would make a good Dalek," it says, and asks him for orders. His treatment of the Dalek parallels two earlier sequences in the series. The first is an explicit contrast with his action towards the "space pig" in Aliens of London; here, in "Dalek", he also wants to help a frightened, stranded traveller, but instead reacts with fear and violence (as did the soldiers confronted by the pig) rather than compassion. Secondly, this story, as noted above, explores the themes raised by the death of Cassandra; as before, the Doctor allows his hatred of the Daleks and his feelings about the destruction of Gallifrey to rule his emotions, and tries to destroy the Dalek rather than accepting that the war is over and that it's in the same position that he is. As in "The End of the World", too, Rose supplies the voice of morality; here, though, perhaps through having more confidence (or a better understanding of the Doctor) than before, she will not allow the Doctor to kill the Dalek, and is able to articulate what is wrong with his actions towards it to him. He is also initially willing to sacrifice Rose to stop the Dalek, but in the end realises that he was wrong to do so. Here, the Doctor is brought to understand that he cannot simply go around killing sentient creatures, even those who are guilty of horrible acts, simply because he wants to do it, and also that the price of vengeance is often too high.
Finally, Rose's behaviour towards the Doctor and the Dalek draw out the parallel between the two of them. She acts as conscience to both beings, persuading both that, in the words of Gandhi, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, that we have a choice over how to behave, and that all the intelligence in the world cannot make up for a lack of compassion. Her giving the Dalek emotions is also not presented in a simple, straightforward way; she has arguably given it a more full and nuanced life, but, because a Dalek cannot live like that, she has also condemned it. In this way, through Rose's actions, the story acknowledges that doing good can also come with a price, and that life is not a simple case of good triumphing over evil and everyone living happily ever afterwards as a result of their experiences.
As with earlier stories this season, "Dalek" draws on a number of antecedents, Doctor Who and otherwise. The key parallels are with The Caves of Androzani (with Van Statten, Morgus-like, influencing presidential elections, withholding the cure for the common cold for financial reasons, and being abruptly replaced by his seemingly-compliant female assistant; the Doctor's two hearts are namechecked), The Power of the Daleks (with a Dalek being found by humans who don't understand what it is and try to harness its power without realising the inherent peril in such action, as well as the mutual antagonism between the Doctor and the Daleks), "The Evil of the Daleks" (with humanised Daleks, whose emotionality proves destructive to them and their fellow Daleks, a corrupt businessman who thinks he can get something from the Daleks, and again humans assuming that they can deal rationally with the creatures), "Remembrance of the Daleks" (with the last of the Daleks committing suicide, an emotional bond between a girl and a Dalek, the Doctor being responsible for the destruction of the Daleks as a species, and the infamous floating-up-stairs sequence), The Daleks' Master Plan (with manipulative Daleks dealing with an unscrupulous and powerful man and his ambitious assistant; the Dalek mutant seen at the end also looks like that seen at the end of "Master Plan") The Invasion (the head of a powerful electronics company, with his own private security force, using alien technology; Geocomtex's website even suggests that they have taken over International Electromatics at some point) and Shearman's own Big Finish audio "Jubilee" (with a captive Dalek which bonds with the Doctor's companion). Minor influences include "The Space Museum" (which also features both a museum and, briefly, a Dalek), Death to the Daleks (with the Dalek gun failing to work and the Doctor advancing on the now-helpless alien with glee), "Attack of the Cybermen" (with the TARDIS picking up a distress signal to Earth, and the Doctor going in search of a frightened and vulnerable alien only to receive a nasty surprise), and "Aliens of London/World War Three" (with the presence of a Slitheen arm suggesting that they have, and not before time, gotten stuffed). Davros is mentioned but not named, which is just as well (those who know will get it, those who don't will not be subjected to tedious backstory). Finally, the presence of a "Revenge of the Cybermen" head with an accompanying card dating it to 1979 blows Cyberman history wide open, but, as everyone involved with the story would have known this, it is most likely a deliberate inside joke; the choice of this particular helmet, with its "teardrop" eye design, might also indicate a poignant bit of symbolism regarding the plight of the Doctor and at least one of his old enemies. Outside the Doctor Who canon, the story once again has links to Brazil (with similar sequences of a powerful man racing down corridors trailed by attendants), and the Aliens series (with businesspeople willing to sacrifice hundreds of lives to preserve an alien for profit-making purposes, soldiers of both sexes being picked off by a creature more powerful than they are, and a genetic bond between the heroine and the alien). The story thus continues to reference its roots, albeit not obtrusively.
"Dalek", like its immediate predecessor, also contains allegories of recent political events; however, it is less heavy-handed in this regard than "Aliens of London/World War Three", containing subtle rather than direct parallels. The torture of the Dalek (with its colouring recalling an Abrams tank) is reminiscent of the debate surrounding the Americans' conduct at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, with a powerful nation taking the law into its own hands and interrogating individuals simply to get what it wants; the moral debate surrounding the Doctor's reaction to the Dalek also feeds into the current issue of whether the possibility that a prisoner has committed acts of terrorism justifies taking away their human rights. The sequence where the security commander dismisses the Doctor's advice on how to defeat the Dalek, and then winds up spectacularly outclassed, also has uncomfortable parallels with the USA's belief that Iraq would be an easy war to win and refusal to accept the experts' advice on dealing with the WMD question. This parallel does raise one of two minor quibbles with the story (the second being that De Maggio didn't get half enough screen time before dying heroically), namely, that Rose and Adam manage to run through a combat zone full of Americans without catching any friendly fire.
Moving from real-life conflicts to fictional ones, the Time War returns to the narrative in this story. It is, predictably, well handled, with the Doctor and Dalek teasing around the edges of the events but not discussing outright what has happened, allowing room for mystery and speculation; too often, as the recent Star Wars prequels arguably demonstrate, pinning down and explaining past events causes them to lose their emotional potency and appeal to the viewer. It may be possible, however, that the Time War caused the erasure of the Daleks from history; the Dalek in this story is said to have "fallen through time," and we learn that it is alone in the universe, even though past events within the series have indicated that the Daleks of 2012 should be an active presence. All of this suggests a war in which the participants are engaged in erasing each others' timelines and altering history. The point of the story is less the war, however, than the emotional impact that such destruction has on those involved, whichever side they may be on, in keeping with this episode's general focus on the emotional and personal as opposed to the grand adventure.
Finally, a note on the physical aspects of the story. The special effects are generally great, aside from one or two moments when the Dalek looks a little too obviously computer-generated; the bullets-hitting-the-forcefield sequence is of particular note, as is the Dalek "plunger" conforming to the shape of the keyboard as it works out the lock's combination. The story is also perfectly paced, being the first this season that feels neither too long nor too short. On the current-events front, there have been no significant deaths or weddings this weekend, but one might easily argue that having the Daleks back on our screens is an important enough event in itself.
All in all, "Dalek" is easily the best story of the season to date, and one which it is already safe to call a classic of the series.